All farmers in NI will need to complete carbon benchmarking to be able to claim new support payments, a senior DAERA official has confirmed.

Speaking in Belfast on Tuesday, Norman Fulton said carbon benchmarking will be a condition of the Farm Sustainability Payment, the main replacement to the Basic Payment Scheme in NI.

The new carbon benchmarking programme will involve collecting information about each farm’s greenhouse gas emissions to calculate a carbon footprint.

Quality assurance

Initially, it will be a requirement for members of the NI beef and lamb farm quality assurance scheme, although Fulton was clear that it will eventually be extended to all NI farms.

“It will be a whole farm approach. All farms in NI will be participating in this. It will set the baseline for farmers, their sectors, and the region,” he said.

Soil scheme

Another condition of the Farm Sustainability Payment is participation in the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme, a soil sampling project which measures total carbon stored in soils, trees, and hedgerows on each farm.

In addition, claimants will be required to abide by new rules, known as Farm Sustainability Standards, develop a nutrient management plan, and participate in a new ruminant genetics programme.

“We hope in the month of June, we will set out the pathway. It’s obviously been difficult with the absence of an Executive and ministers,” Fulton said.

“We think we are far enough forward to make an announcement to set out what to expect this year, the year after, and the year after, so farm business can prepare for what is coming,” he added.

Headage payments

At the event organised by various environmental groups, Fulton was asked if DAERA plans for headage payments in sucklers and beef run contrary to advice from the UK government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC).

In March, the CCC published recommendations stating that to meet climate change targets by 2030, dairy cattle numbers in NI should fall by 22%, beef cattle by 17%, and sheep numbers by 18%.

In response, Fulton pointed out that strict conditions will be attached to headage payments which will make the ruminant livestock sectors more efficient and therefore lower carbon emissions.

This includes requirements on age at first calving and subsequent calving intervals for suckler cows, plus criteria on age at slaughter for beef cattle.

Fulton added that strings will be attached so that suckler farmers do not start keeping extra cows as they become more efficient.

“There will be a quota on the subsidy within the suckler cow system. We will probably have a negative subsidy in there as well so if you go above [quota] you will see your payment fall,” he said.

Dairy heifers

The DAERA official also revealed that a payment for dairy farmers is under development. “We want to work with the dairy sector to reduce the age of first calving for dairy replacements,” Fulton said.